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"Mumbai became a metaphor for the larger world"

March 19, 2007
You published your first collection at 21, nine years after your family moved to Mumbai. Did the city have anything to do with your need to express yourself through poetry?

Poems in my first Marathi collection were written between the ages of 15 and 21. They begin with my experience of my uprooting from my native Baroda. I entered Mumbai when I attained puberty. Simultaneously, Mumbai entered my poetry. Being a precocious reader, my grounding in literature was wider and deeper than my academic upbringing, and often at variance with it. I was passionately interested in music, photography, drawing, and painting since the age of 10. In Mumbai, I had opportunities to mingle with artists, musicians, film technicians and photographers much older than I.

I met Pandit Sharadchandra Arolkar, an outstanding vocalist of the Gwalior Gharana at age 16. I was a daily visitor to his home in Shivaji Park until I left for Ethiopia. He was a profound influence on my ideas of art, not just music. Mumbai figures in my early Marathi and English poetry in different ways and at several levels. I perceived the metropolis in juxtaposition with primordial nature as perceived in my childhood. There was a discord. There was a sense of manmade alienation that haunted me.

Though most of my early poetry is metrical and sometimes stylised, it was spontaneous and unpremeditated. The big city's polyphony, its cacophony as well, its many human voices and points of view, made me move towards more accommodative, open-ended, cadenced free verse and the rhythms of colloquial speech. My early poetry was sensuous, erotic, and exuded a kind of sexuality that was instinctive and natural to me in my youth. Yet, I felt I was being robbed of my youth itself by the big city where human values come to die, lured by its opulence and glitz. A political awareness of this process followed slowly, but surely. Mumbai became for me a map and a metaphor for the larger world. It prepared me for all the later big cities in my life: Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Tokyo and Hong Kong, for example. All of them had something of Mumbai in them.

In my later poetry, many of these other cities figure because I write poems instead of an autobiographical journal. They are not travel notes though. Cities in my work connect with all the major themes of life and death, though the countryside is equally present. My first Marathi collection of poems was published in 1960. My first collection of English poems came out 20 years later, in 1980. But all through this period, I wrote simultaneously in both languages; and not just poetry. I wrote fiction, plays, essays, film scripts and criticism as well.

What kind of impact, according to you, did the little magazine movement in Marathi have? What do you think it changed?

Arun Kolatkar, Bandu Waze, Ramesh Samartha and I launched the first Marathi little magazine devoted exclusively to poetry in 1954. From 1955, we published it irregularly in mimeographed form. We collected money from friends and the magazine was distributed free to all public and college libraries in Maharashtra whose postal addresses we could collect. It reached poets and readers of poetry in many remote towns and cities and created the first 'network' of its kind in Maharashtra.

Little magazines heralded a change in literary sensibility and in the politics of literary taste. They also promoted alternative perspectives to politics, culture, and society. It was only a decade after Shabda -- the poetry magazine we launched in 1954-55 and ceased to publish in 1960 -- that the movement gathered momentum. Literary historiographers often ignore the time lag and treat it as though it was a continuous movement with one single agenda. Little magazines of the late 1960s and early 1970s had political rather than literary orientation. Marxist and Dalit magazines provide examples. They were also clique or coterie publications that did not attempt to reach and awaken new readership.

With only a limited number of pages per issue, they could publish mostly poetry, critical commentary, and short pieces of fiction. It was only in the 1990s that the movement was revived by a new generation of poet-editors. Today, there are at least four little magazines in Marathi regularly published from different cities in Maharashtra.

Image: Dilip and Viju Chitre at the Piazza San Marco, in Venice. Photograph by Henning Stegmueller, Munich, Germany. Stegmueller and Chitre wrote a screenplay based on Anita Desai's Baumgartener's Bombay that has a scene in Venice; the project was abandoned but Stegmueller insisted on taking the Chitres to Venice while they were visiting Germany.

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